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A Creative Tension

Earlier this week, when I had finished being at the Headmaster’s Assembly, I found myself standing between two chalets in the Christmas Market looking back at the Cathedral and wondering; not that the wondering had much clarity to it. But with the wondering came a tension within me. Not all tensions, I remind myself, are negative. Indeed, without tension in nature, the world, at least as I know it, wouldn’t have come into being. What was this specific feeling of tension within me about? The answer, it seems to me, lies within the Cathedral itself. Those who read this blog and, perhaps, have connections greater or lesser to the Cathedral, might, with me, reflect on the tension.

Often, I’m surprised by how complex the Cathedral as an organism is.

To begin with, it has at least 26 different communities within it. And the Cathedral School is, obviously, one of them. Some of these communities are aware of each other. For example, there are at least five communities that come under the heading of the Cathedral Choir: boys, girls, adults, musicians, parents etc…  The mistake I have often made is to imagine that the Cathedral community with which I identify is the most significant. Take the 10.00am Sung Eucharist on a Sunday Morning. Undoubtedly, it’s important, but it is another community, albeit a malleable one, without clear definition. However, there’s a quite distinct set of communities that are associated with the administrative, financial, maintenance, architectural and marketing work of the Cathedral. The Christmas Market is one outcome of that work.  All involved in these communities are hard-working and deeply committed to their task. But, here’s where the tension lies, perhaps.

To shed some light on this tension, I’m going to give you a little of my journal entry for a Thursday in November 2017, when I was acting-Precentor [responsible for the team who manage the liturgy and music of the Cathedral]. There was, as usual, the daily Morning Office [Morning Prayer] and the Eucharist in the Lady Chapel, with the reassuring sound of the choristers rehearsing, wafting gently through the Cathedral. Two distinct communities at work… Later, up in the Liturgy and Music Department which is at the top of the West Wing, I spent a morning with Tom Salmon, the Administrator of the Liturgy and Music Department, polishing up the Orders of Service for Advent Sunday. A email request then came in for an orchestral and choral concert on a Saturday afternoon the following year. Here’s where the tension poked its head above the surface, because there’s Sung Evensong on a Saturday afternoon. For concert organisers, this can be a problem, as they need the afternoon to rehearse the music, remembering that using the Cathedral for concerts doesn’t come cheaply. In the small grinding of conflicting demands, I realised then that the administrative staff of the Cathedral have an assumption about their task, based on the one hand, that the Cathedral is a venue to be marketed, which, of course it is. However, it is also built for the daily and constant round of prayer, resourced by texts, music and movement – and, hopefully, silence. For some, including me, that is a central, but not the sole task of the Cathedral.

Thus the tension is between a view of the Cathedral as a heritage and event facility on the one hand and on the other a shrine; a sacred space. On the whole that tension is held carefully and sometimes creatively. When it wasn’t held, in my experience, I realised that I’d been assuming that the administrative staff had little interest in or time to give to the ‘shrine’ aspect of the Cathedral. For me, somehow, that tension is creative because it heightens the awareness of the need of each contributing part of the tension to give the best that it can, without damaging the other contributions to the tension. That’s not to suggest that there are no moments when the tension boils over, with the occasional throwing of the ‘toys out of the pram’. I, as a bishop, am adept at throwing all my toys out of the pram – on occasion!

You who are reading this have, to a greater or lesser degree, varying connections with the Cathedral School, that describes itself, rightly as a community. In fact, the school is the coming together of several communities: pupils, boarders, choristers, teaching staff, administrative and maintenance staff, cooking staff, cleaning staff, sports, music and events, not to mention peripatetic and nursing staff. Oh! Parents, Grand-parents, Guardians… How do all these view the Cathedral? Has it now become, with the diminishment of the ancient Christian Churches, a heritage building? Does what happens within it ‘speak’ to you or is it a culture with which you can or cannot identify?

The Christmas Market is there, of course, to produce an income for the Cathedral. It is also there to produce an income for traders. Then, there’s you and me wandering through. […me looking for the Kebab chalet!] All this happening when we are still nervous about the Pandemic. Does the Christmas market affect the Cathedral as it happens and vice versa? Yes! But, I must be careful. Most of that affect is hidden. To insist on spelling out the dynamics of the Christian faith and practice can be a mistake. For me, Christ is caught and not taught, recognising that teaching does come, after the inspiration of Christ has been caught. The question is whether you’re aware of the possibility or not. Or is all this fading whispers in the wind? I caution myself here. The traders, for example may well be carrying the anxieties of our economy. Who knows what that may be doing within the hearts and minds of those behind the counters? And what about the daily life of the Cathedral? The tension between the immediate need to maintain and sustain the building and its organisations, over against having a long-view of the Love of God expressed in so many obvious and not so obvious ways, maybe reaching out beyond our limited and limiting boundaries to people of whom you’ll have never heard. Meanwhile round the edges are the various disenfranchised folk, who live beneath most of our radars. They’re part of the tension as well.

So, I wonder what you make of the tension that I’ve tried to describe? Maybe it might start a conversation that will deepen the creativity of the tension, not only within the School and the Cathedral, but in being creative in the tension in a time that seems charged with negative tensions.

Bishop Martin
School Chaplain

25 November 2021
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